Charting the future of public relations
An annotated guide to Edelman's ethical framework
Arun Sudhaman
Holmes Report
President/Editor-in-Chief

An annotated guide to Edelman's ethical framework

Arun Sudhaman

Edelman has released a sponsored content report that offers a very useful overview of the techniques that are changing the way public relations people amplify content via paid distribution and marketing. Specifically, as we explored in our in-depth content marketing series earlier this year, paid media options - via digital media channels like BuzzFeed and technology solutions like Outbrain - are rapidly altering the tools available to agencies, and the manner in which brands attempt to earn engagement from people. Of particular interest is an 'ethical framework' that Edelman outlines as part of the report. The firm's chief content strategist Steve Rubel, who authored the report, notes that the "ethical challenges are formidable", and that the framework put forward by Edelman should mark the start of a consultation process with clients and industry. In that spirit, we have excerpted the ethical framework below and provided our own annotated comments. As ever, your thoughts are welcome. Disclosure (1) Edelman will disclose that editorial-style “sponsored content” in the news section on major news sites like The Huffington Post, The Washington Post and Forbes.com is in fact sponsored. This should be accomplished by using a clear and acceptable vocabulary. The firm will strive to work with publishers that are equally dedicated to clearly delineating what content is paid for vs. what's editorial in every channel. Addresses a key concern with a clear policy. But what happens when a publisher does not match that level of concern for paid vs editorial? Particularly in a country like, say, China? And how does this extend to social channels? (2) For each piece of sponsored content Edelman produces for news sites, the firm will advocate including the opportunity for the audience to substantively participate in the conversation. This is consistent with the firm’s conviction that clients should actively and meaningfully participate in a connected world to increase trust, deepen relationships, change behaviors and foster and sustain economic success. There is little to quibble with here. Even if that opportunity is not granted, the firm knows that people are going to respond elsewhere. Quality (3) Sponsored content programs will be primarily utilized to amplify that which is owned and/or earned media - not to replace it. Paid amplification joins search and visual content in the center of the Edelman Media Cloverleaf model as an accelerator of transmedia storytelling. Life is, frankly, too short for me to decipher this one.  (4) Journalism is no longer a publish-once- and-done exercise. In a fluid medium, news stories can now be constantly updated and sometimes expanded to reflect new information. All sponsored content Edelman produces for news sites/ apps will seek to follow such conventions. This may seem obvious but I suspect that many sponsored posts are viewed from an advertising mindset. Once they are signed off, therefore, there is probably a temptation to view them as ‘done’ rather than as the start of an evolving story. Process (5) Edelman will maintain a firm non-conditionality policy. It will not engage in quid pro quo discussions that intertwine that which is paid for and that which is earned. These are separate processes and discussions. Further, it continues to maintain a strict policy that it does not engage in so-called pay-for-play schemes where compensation influences earned journalistic content. This makes sense from the sponsor side. How do you police this behaviour across multiple countries (including some with considerable paid/earned interplay) and publishers that are less scrupulous? And (see below), how does this play out when so many PR people are learning how to broaden their traditional earned efforts with paid techniques, particularly on a site like Facebook which encourages you to boost a status update by spending some cash? (6) The firm will separate its day-to-day earned media work with journalists from the paid work in structuring news media partnerships. The latter will be handled by a separate team of media buyers the firm is hiring in the U.S. Those who actively cultivate day-to-day editorial relationships in an effort to secure third-party earned coverage will not be engaged in paid negotiations with the publishing side of news media companies for sponsored content - and vice versa. This mirrors the so-called church-state divide in the press. The idea of bringing church/state to the PR world is intriguing but does raise some specific concerns. Will this approach ‘ghettoise’ existing skillsets? If we accept that we are moving towards a more integrated world, then the implication is that a good PR person should be able to work an idea from conception to completion, rather than a media relations pro operating in isolation from a someone who buys media. From a client perspective, who becomes more valuable - someone who understands the implicit value of content, or someone who knows how to broaden its reach via paid media?  Enforcing separation, furthermore, may be a futile response as more 'converged media' hubs take root at brands and publishers. Neither does it guarantee ethical purity, any more than letting one person work across all channels becomes immediately dubious. Instead of separating people in this fashion, a possible alternative approach might be to accept an degree of overlap in skills and provide plenty of training on process and ethics. Indeed, training does not appear to be mentioned in this guide.  Perhaps we are being overly critical of what is a very helpful guide to the ethics of content marketing, but I'd welcome any other thoughts and feedback.
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